UHO: Audio

This is part of a series about the Ultimate Home Office (UHO).

My audio setup is very important to me: on one hand, I have multiple podcasts, including Exponent, Dithering, and the Stratechery Daily Update Podcast, which means input matters, and I also listen to (non-vocal) music while writing, which means output matters. And, of course, there are calls and conferences.

Recording Mic(s)

My primary recording mic is the Shure BETA 87A Supercardioid Condenser Vocal Microphone.

Condenser microphones generally have better sound quality but are more unforgiving of surrounding noice than dynamic microphones; this mic, though, rejects almost all sound that is not straight on, making it ideal for a home office where there may sometimes be sounds you can’t control. I also like that it has a built in shock mount; external ones look cool, but just get in the way if you want to be able to actually use your computer while recording.

For travel I use the Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB Cardioid Dynamic Microphone, which is the updated version of the ATR2100 I used previously. What makes these mics so great for travel is that, unlike almost all other USB mics — and unlike my Shure — they are dynamic mics, which trades off top-end sound quality for much less sensitivity to surrounding noise. This is particularly useful for places like hotel rooms where it is even harder to control your sound environment. (The ATR2100x improves on the ATR-2100 by changing its USB-Mini connection for a USB-C one; everything else appears to be the same, which is perfect.)

Preamp

High-end mics, including my Shure, require a preamp to both power the microphone and convert its signal into something usable for recording devices, which in my case, means a USB interface.

I use a Sound Devices USBPre 2, which has no software to speak of, wonderfully smooth dials, utilitarian lights, and as many interfaces as you might like. I use three of them: XLR-in for the mic, 3.5mm out for my recording headphones, and a USB connection to the computer.

This is a pretty big step up from the Onyx Blackjack I used previously, but that didn’t handle the Shure well, and honestly, this is just better in every way. I’ve used it to record hundreds of podcasts, and have no reason to believe it won’t handle hundreds more.

Shotgun Mic

This is a new addition to my setup, thanks to Matt Mullenweg’s recommendation.

I will get to the camera part of this setup in the upcoming video section; for now I’m referring to the microphone mounted on the camera. This is the Sony ECM-B1M shotgun mic, and it’s honestly incredible. It has noise-canceling built-in, can be set to a supercardioid pickup pattern (which means it only collects sound from straight ahead), and while I wouldn’t use it for recording podcasts, it results in fantastic audio for almost all other applications. It’s better than a lavalier, AirPods, basically anything other than a proper mic right in your face…and it’s not right in your face.

Headphone Amp

This is a recent upgrade, the story of which I will get into in the headphone section. For now it’s enough to say I have the Schiit Jotunheim with Multibit DAC.

I previously had the Schiit Magni/Modi combo; I’ll explain why I upgraded below. Suffice to say this beast powers my headphones without a problem, and sounds incredible while doing so. Lovely knob-turning feel as well.

Headphones

So this is a bit of a saga.

I originally started out with the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro’s, which work great for podcasting; I eventually realized, though, that they are terrible for music. So, as anyone who wants to spend too money on what will certainly be the best possible solution is liable to do, I reached out to Marco Arment for a recommendation. After making clear I didn’t want to spend as much as he surely did, he suggested I go with the Jotunheim above and a mid-tier Hi-Fi Man set of open-ear headphones.

As hinted at above, I didn’t listen, at least not completely: I got the headphones he suggested, but went with the significantly cheaper Magni/Modi amp/DAC combo. Almost immediately, I got the sense that my headphones weren’t getting enough power — there was no increase in volume from about 50% on — but I pretended everything was fine.

Then, a few years on, I decided that I wanted to consolidate my headphone situation. I couldn’t use the open-ear headphones for podcasts, for obvious reasons, which meant I had two headphones at my desk; this time, determined to not short-shrift myself, I went with Marco’s top recommendation, the Dan Clark AEON 2 Closed Headphones (because they are closed they are usable for podcasting).

These are absolutely incredible. The jump from my mid-tier Hi-Fi Man headphones to these was just as big as the jump from the Sennheiser’s to the Hi-Fi Man’s. It also became extremely apparent that the Magni/Modi combo was woefully insufficient: the primary impact of the volume knob was crackling in the headphones, with very little difference in volume, and there was a low-level hum in the headphones when there was no music playing.

And so, in the end, I ended up with the Jotunheim after all, and am better for it. The Dan Clark’s are dead silent without music, and extremely loud with the volume turned up, and as I noted above, increasing or decreasing the volume is a delightful experience, not a painful one.

The problem, though, is that using a different amp for podcasting — the Jotunheim instead of the USBPre 2 — meant that I couldn’t hear myself while recording. I had two options: first, I could set something up in Audio Hijack to pipe the sound of my own mic into the Jotunheim, but at the same time I was increasingly using Zencastr for recording, and didn’t want to have to run extra software every time I recorded. That, by extension, left two hardware-based option: I could either plug the Dan Clark’s into the USBPre 2, which mixes in your mic with the output at a hardware level, or I could keep the Sennheiser’s at my desk just for podcasting. I went with the latter.

So yes, I ended up with the exact setup I started out with, just with a far more expensive amp and headphone combo! The sound quality, though, is honestly worth it. At least that is what I tell myself!

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: The Ultimate Home Office
  • Computing Setup: computers, power supply, monitors, keyboard, mouse/trackpad
  • Audio Setup: recording mic, preamp, shotgun mic, headphone amp, headphones
  • Video Setup: camera, lens, teleprompter, lights, green screen
  • Supporting Equipment: desk, light, chair, printer, mounts
  • Wiring: routers, switches, access points, chargers, cable management

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